By John Walker on November 20th, 2008 at 1:15 am.
The SciFi Channel in the US has started a brand new television programme, billing itself as “world’s first live-action videogame.” Forgetting, oh, so many shows that contradict this (I’ll leave that to you below, but let’s just say Knightmare here to get things started), the result is something so special that all who are able should watch. Please people, be outstanding for the majesty of Cha$e.
Let me explain the concept.
Ten contestants, known as Runners, have to stay uncaptured for 60 minutes in a large “game map”, then be the first to find the hidden exit gate. In episode one this was a dockyards, in an area about four street blocks squared (including a ferry crossing). These Runners, seemingly chosen for their inability to run, are pursued by an ever-increasing number of Hunters. These are men/women-in-black who walk around the streets of the location, searching for the Runners. We know they’re searching because each time we see from the camera mounted on their black shades, we see a rotating circle from a 1980s robot movie on screen, and the word “SEARCHING” flashing on and off.
It’s essentially a multiplayer game made “real”. There’s even aspects of co-op necessary for success, but is, in the end, a Free For All. Fragile allegiances are required to complete certain puzzles (in the first episode this involved rearranging a large pyramid of metal barrels to create a picture, and thus unlocking the Deflector).
Right, yes, okay, the Deflector. This is where it starts to get really good. The Runners are equipped with special items that they unlock as they play. The first is the Deflector – lump of plastic that when pointed at an approaching Hunter emits a special effect added on later, and causes the pursuer to immediately stop chasing and walk away in the opposite direction. Now, in a videogame, maybe. It’d be silly, but maybe they’re robots and my Deflector can temporarily override their programming. But these are people! Real life people, obeying playground rules. “I fired my Deflector at you! You totally have to run that way now!”
The Deflector, happily, is the most sensible of items in the game. Next revealed, as the Runners were warned their backpacks were to start emitting a screeching alarm in five minutes, were the Invisibility Glasses. (I’m so happy I’m not making this up.) By slotting their backpacks into another contestant’s, they were able to remove them, deactivating the alarm, and retrieving the ludicrous giant shades. When put on they turn the Runner invisible for two minutes.
Oh, it’s just so funny. The Hunter is charging toward them, and then suddenly has to veer off in the feigned pretence that they’re no longer there. A suited, shade-wearing hard man, jogging straight past the huffing, puffing Runner with giant orange glasses on their face. And then there’s the Sonic Stunner! A freeze-gun that makes the Hunter stand still for a bit. Oh, sweet joy.
All these things would work fine in a videogame. You can create a mythology that supports them. I don’t know, the glasses could actually make you invisible. Rather than be stood there, in plain site, while a ludicrously overdressed man plays that he can’t see you, waving his head around in confusion.
Messages are delivered to the Runners throughout, via their iPhone-alikes. I’m not sure in what form the messages really appear, but we’re asked to believe it’s the world’s greatest quality video-phone. A conceit that would be slightly more convincing if the video didn’t overlap the edge of the device. Obviously TV requires all screens be added in after to remove strobing, etc (and indeed monitors in trap-rooms are, equally unconvincingly), but really. They could have at least confined the image to the object’s limits.
But all the above is fiction, and to a certain extent you can excuse it. If you embrace the rules and take part – hell, that’s why playground games worked. But where Cha$e (hurts to type) really collapses into giggles and nonsense is when the contestants hide.
The programme follows familiar tropes of competitive reality TV. Clearly borrowing lots from The Amazing Race, bits from Survivor, and an awful lot from Channel 4’s 1996 show Wanted (but presumably they weren’t aware they were) and a fair amount from NBC’s 2006 summer show, Treasure Hunters, it knows how to slickly introduce you to all the contestants in situ, etc. The concept is overwrought, and explained using graphics that would embarrass the ’70s, but it never gets convoluted. But unlike all those other shows, it makes no attempt to hide the camera crew. So as a Runner hides behind a large bin, there’s no question at all for the Hunter where they might be because of the camera guy with the giant camera on his shoulder, standing right next to her. It’s constantly hilarious.
There’s no question about watching this. You have to. If you’re in the US with access to SciFi, to miss out would be a waste of owning a TV. It’s on Tuesdays, 10/9c on SciFi (
currently full episodes aren’t available full episodes are available on their website for US readers – thanks Pace). There doesn’t appear to be any evidence of the show getting near the schedules for the UK SciFi channel, but the inevitable protests will address this. Honestly, it’s corny as hell, but it’s just so much fun.
The lesson here is: videogames are videogames for a reason. Real life is real life because it isn’t a videogame. (Take that, philosophy!) But trying to confuse the two can result in some spectacularly silly jumbles. It’s worth it for the peculiar fear the Runners produce when pursued. They seem to forget they’re competing for $25,000 and start to fear for their lives. Which just makes their being caught all the funnier: they’re tapped on the shoulder.